Mos Def looks like the troubled lead singer Eddie King Jr. from Robert Townsend's '60s-set musical drama "The Five Heartbeats." Wearing a snazzy form-fitting suit, Mos has his hair permed and combed back, and much like King after singing "Nights Like This," the hip-hop renaissance man is sweaty. He's been under hot lights performing with Faith Evans.
"Could somebody get me a towel please?" Mos kindly orders after halting his performance. "I don't want to use anybody else's towel because once I wipe my sweat, it's not theirs anymore."
While Mos checks out his and Evans' performance on a monitor ("How'd it look up there? I'm a little worried because I was a little stiff," he says to his assistant. "I started some crazy sh--."), the soulful songstress looks like she could have easily stepped out of the old-school flick "Sparkle," with her red wig and dress, and feather boa to match.
"I'm digging it very much," Mos would later say during a break in the day's action, his hair tied up and in a doo-rag to keep it tidy. "I like how we kind of play with time. We're doing this retro thing but not exactly. You see the tattoos [on Faith's arm] and understand it's a setup. That's what I kind of like about it. It kind of messes with the era and it's almost like a clever joke that we throwing at the audience."
On Saturday in Brooklyn's Greenpoint Studios, Mos and Faith were completing the second consecutive day of shooting for "Brown Sugar (Extra Sweet)," the first single from the soundtrack to "Brown Sugar," which Mos also stars in.
"The song is just a up-tempo party joint," Mos said. "Get the girls dancing, get the party moving. I love doing songs about women, and women love to hear about themselves in songs, so it was good to do. And Faith just adds a real element of class to it. I was glad to be able to get a chance to work with Faith."
While Mos was talking, his eyes tended to wander off onto the set. He scoped out the crew members' movements as they moved pieces of equipment. Mos has to make sure everything's on point — there is no one to blame but himself if something goes wrong. He's at the helm, his first time directing a video.
"I'm really encouraged to see what was in my head come out and look good and not be like, 'Oh, I was trippin',' " Mos said. "I'm having a real good time. It's really been no hard parts. Today has been my toughest day because I'm in it. Yesterday I wasn't in it at all. There are scenes where I'm driving, I can see the monitors nearby. The most difficult thing for me is when I'm in it, not being able to see every shot and having to wait for the playback.
"When I'm at the monitor, the performances I can look at and say, 'Let's do this' while the shot is still rolling," he added. "It's always a measure of control that you give up when you're in [the video] and you're directing it. But I have good people around me and I'm confident."
Mos, who said he's always been a visual person, felt no one could get the vision for the clip across better than the person who conceived it: him.
"Basically it's four young women in their daily lives — two of them coming home from work, two of them are chilling at home," Mos described on the video's plot. "[We're] showing the process of them getting ready to come to this party, but just to show them in their natural environment. A lot of times you don't get to see black women in their natural environment. In a lot of videos the girls are already made up beautiful. You don't get to see them at the house, chillin' in their boxers.
"I wanted to do something like that and show that they're beautiful regardless, even when they at home," he continued. "I get a lot of inspiration from photography, Mark Baptiste and others. I wanted to create some stillness and a high-animation atmosphere."
Mos and Faith's performance is actually a scene within a scene. The girls Mos talked about will be watching them on TV as they get dressed for a party.
Whether on the TV screen or the movie screen, Mos has been chalking up plenty of time in front of the cameras as the host of "Def Poetry Jam" and in films such as "Monster's Ball" and "Showtime" — and he isn't planning on letting up anytime soon. He just signed on to play Half Ear, an explosives expert with a hearing aid, alongside Mark Wahlberg, Ed Norton and Charlize Theron in F. Gary Gray's remake of "The Italian Job."
To fans who have been waiting for Mos' follow-up to 1999's Black on Both Sides, Mos promises that his next project will "soon come."
"I never left, man," Mos declared. "I just stay quiet, but I be working all the time. I've been in the studio so much. I haven't released anything. People know that I'm a musician. My basic concern with music is I do what I'm excited about and what I feel."
The object of Mos' affection is an album from his band Black Jack Johnson, which he feels confident will drop this year.
"Black Jack Johnson, I named it after the champion that nobody wanted," the Brooklyn native explained. Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1908.
"That's how hip-hop is. We the champs that nobody wants. I call [the music's feel] 'ghetto rock.' It's no description I could give it because it's new. It's new to my ears. It don't sound like nothing nobody's doing or what I've heard anybody do."
Mos divulged that he's been in the studio with Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish from Living Colour, Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic, Dr. Know from Bad Brains and producers Kanye West, Easy Mo Bee and Minnesota. Foxy Brown, N.O.R.E., Styles and Snoop Dogg are among those on the list of MCs he wants for the album.
"It's ghetto rock and roll — ghetto-ready, arena rock-ready, [housing] project-ready," he said. I just gotta let it out. I been working on it forever and I ain't gonna let it go 'til it's right. And it's sounding right, right about now."
The soundtrack to "Brown Sugar" comes out September 24. The movie hits theaters October 11.